The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Past and Present

If Kyoto felt like a pitch-perfect blend of Japan’s past and present, the latter half of my sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun saw those two elements divided and explored in isolation. I had four days left in Japan, and while Tokyo was the inevitable end goal of the experience, I still had a day to spend in a capital city of an older vintage.

Nara sits in a quiet valley south of Kyoto and east of Osaka. It’s something of a quiet adjunct to those major metropolises now, but back in the 8th century AD it was the capital of a nation that was still in the process of forming itself. Long before the age of samurai, Japan was developing its connections to China and Korea and absorbing influences like Buddhism. It was probably a chaotic, uncertain time, as can be seen in the fact that the Nara period lasted less than a century, but for me Nara proved a peaceful getaway in the midst of an overwhelming week.

Deer don’t care. And they will chase you if you have biscuits.

There was an element of familiarity to the layout of the smaller, older city. Like Kyoto, Nara’s city centre is small and manageable, and to its east lies a much larger temple complex that is probably the main draw for most visitors. Booking at short notice, I ended up in a hotel instead of the ryokan I’d enjoyed in Kyoto, but in both cities I ended up spending most of my time wandering and exploring.

The key memory I have of Nara is the deer. If the temple district is where most tourists go, then the deer are the stars. The deer know it too. Regarded as divine messengers, they have absolutely no fear of tourists, and when it comes to eating some of the biscuits that shops sell to feed to them, they will practically bully their way into your pockets to get at them—as I learned no more than 30 seconds after buying some of those biscuits. Lesson learned. For the rest of my wanderings, I contented myself with watching them rather than encouraging stampedes.

Overlooking Nara from the east.

There’s plenty to see amid the temples too, even discounting the deer. A massive statue of the Buddha and some pleasant country walks offering lovely views over the entire valley add to the appeal of the temples themselves, some of which were founded back in the Nara period themselves. (Although, given their wood construction, the odds are that very little of the material inside actually dates to that period.)

On the other side of the city centre, there are more solid remnants of Nara’s storied past, in the form of the keyhole-shaped kofun tombs from centuries earlier than the imperial period, and the remains and reconstructions of Heijo Palace, where the imperial family dwelt back in the day. Exploring all of that, as well as Nara’s restaurants and chilled out nightlife kept me engaged without being exhausted, and even if it didn’t have as much to offer as Kyoto, Nara proved the perfect addition to my exploration of that city.

Playing games in an underground bar in Nara.

Which left Tokyo. A short train trip took me back to Kyoto and a connection with the Shinkansen line. For the second time, I was hurtled at high speed through the Japanese countryside, on a packed train with tiny windows that created the feeling of being on an earthbound airplane. For the first time, I got a view of Mount Fuji, even if it was more limited than any that Hokusai might have enjoyed. I’d get another few before leaving, but I was short the extra day that I would have needed for a day trip from Tokyo to visit.

I’d actually managed to book my accommodation in advance this time, and while I’d considered going for a capsule hotel in pursuit of the true Japan experience, I ended up in a room that wasn’t much bigger and was definitely made for someone much shorter than a six-foot-plus Irishman.

A Tokyo hotel room in its entirety.

The great advantage of this hotel though was its location. I was just a short walk away from Ueno train station, which meant I was right beside the museum district and just a short stroll north of the famous Akihabara district. Despite being one of the world’s genuine megalopolises, Tokyo’s public transport system is amazingly efficient, so picking the perfect location for your hotel isn’t the most important thing, but it worked for me given my love of walking whenever I can.

Talking about the next few days could end up as a long and mostly boring travel itinerary. Not only would that not work for my hypothetical reader, but it would also entail a lot of work for me in terms of checking exactly what I did. And that’s against the spirit of these reminiscences, which are mostly about what I remember and how I felt at the time. And what I felt about Tokyo is that Kyoto had been practice, Nara a short rest, and Tokyo the real deal.

Cloud-wrapped Fuji from the Shinkansen.

To be clear, Kyoto was and is my favourite, but I’d budgeted the largest portion of the trip for Tokyo, spent most of my days there on my feet from early morning until after midnight, and racked up multiple experiences that have stayed with me through the years, and I still don’t think that I more than scratched the surface of this incredible city. It’s too much, no matter where you look, but it’s accessible for all that, and it’s only slightly behind Kyoto on my list of places to revisit.

Perhaps the best way to discuss Tokyo is to talk about its districts. I’ve already mentioned neon-drenched Akihabara, with its array of electronics and games stores and its maid cafes, but it’s just a tiny little sliver of the city as a whole. Closer to where I was staying, there was Ueno Onshi Park, where some of the country’s best museums offer an insight into how Japan came to be and how it sees itself.

An Akihabara store, open to all with electronic needs.

Efforts to view the Tsukiji Fish Market took me through the high-class Ginza district, though the market itself proved to be closed. Nearby were the peaceful Hama-rikyu Gardens though, and I passed a pleasant hour in a tea house looking over still waters and calming greenery. A few days later, I’d take a boat across the bay to the Odaiba Seaside Park, with its Ferris wheel, Hello Kitty store, and Toyota museum. From a glance at a map, a lot has happened to that area in the past ten years, but one of my favourite experiences proved to be walking back across the bay, on the walkway of the Rainbow Bridge.

Ignoring for the most part the imperial palace that lies at the heart of the city (as I tended to use it as a shortcut across Tokyo), we hop to the west and come to the districts of Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. Shibuya is best known for the famous Shibuya Crossing square, which I viewed from a McDonalds after having a long and tiring walk from one side of the city to the other.

Shibuya Crossing, in its natural element—crowded.

Lest it be thought that I’m a complete savage, I did take the opportunity of a visit to Harajuku to try out some top class sushi and break my long-time dislike of that food before going for a ramble around the Yoyogi Park next door, with its massive Meiji Shrine still heavily trafficked by both Japanese and tourists.

Yoyogi sits on the doorstep of Shinjuku, which is almost a city within a city in Tokyo. Rail lines converge here and buildings reach for the sky. In particular, the massive bulk of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, offers a view not only over Tokyo itself, but all the way to Fuji in the distant west. It was a bit too hazy to enjoy that view when I made my way up there, thereby fulfilling my habit of climbing to the top of the tallest viewing point in every city, but the view was good enough for me to return at night and take in the glittering view of Tokyo in the dark.

Tokyo from above at night.

Tokyo in the dark needs a mention all on its own. Back in Moscow I’d felt uncomfortable and out of place when the sun went down. In Tokyo, I felt free to explore in a city that felt safe and was more than welcome to keep running on a 24-hour basis. It probably helped that I didn’t drink much, though I did find my way into a hostess bar for an hour or so that thankfully ended when I ran out of the small amount of money I was carrying on me.

Tokyo never stopped welcoming me or showing me new things over the days that I spent there. And I never ventured too far beyond the loop line that connects all the districts that I’ve talked about above. So there’s doubtless far more to be seen and experienced. I haven’t even talked about streetside noodle bars, hidden shrines, or the odd architecture of the Asahi Beer Hall.

Asahi Beer Hall. Odd.

However, time runs out, especially when you’ve only assigned yourself a small amount. Eventually I summoned my bags, closed the door on my tiny hotel room, and jumped on a train to Narita airport. There I had one last new experience in Japan: a delay. It was handsomely compensated for with a dinner voucher, and before too long I was decanted onto one of Airbus’s great white whales of the sky, an A380. I had a long flight to look forward to, my first since landing in London, and an entirely new country and continent to cross.

Cancer Update

I said that I’d only provide these when I had news to impart, didn’t I? Well, there’s some news. The most recent of my regular scans spotted something untoward in my left lung, and a subsequent PET scan (one of those that leaves me too radioactive to be in the company of small children and pregnant women) determined that it was something that needed treating. So I’ve been referred to radiology for the purposes of thoroughly zapping said something via a tube poked into the host lung. All being well, it’s been spotted early enough to deal with it without too much trouble. I’ve done well out of treatment so far and hopefully that will continue.

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